Multiculturalism

Living in Non-White Whiteness or White Non-Whiteness or ...

Kathleen's 6th Birthday

"What do you like about being white?"

The anti-racism training facilitator chose me to go first. My view of myself as multicultural Latinx, with indigenous heritage and light skinned privilege, was discounted a room full of other participants. Every struggle of not being white enough, or Latina enough flew up to my throat into a knot. I could not get past the word "multicultural," because the facilitator, an African American man, kept interrupting, insisting I was white. I thought my story about my grandparents and great grandparents had explained who I was the day before. The Latina facilitator said in a stage whisper, "She's Latina." The white facilitator said in a stage whisper to the Latina, She's white!" Whispering ensued between them. The facilitator who asked the question more than once said, "Fine, let's move on. We'll get back to you." I sat in shock. The next white individual, somewhat understandably, did not want to claim he was white either.

When I had gone to a people of color retreat last summer, the speaker, Zenju Earthlin Manuel had brought up an example that made sense. In 2013, Black Girl Dangerous blogger, Janani, published, "What's wrong with the term 'person of color?'" In it, they wrote about an exercise about race in an anti-oppression youth camp in the South, in which they, along with two other Asian attendees, were put in the white group rather than the black group. Janani wrote,

I want to return to that moment of racial ambivalence, and why it happened. That moment was unsettling precisely because even if Black and Asian kids had a common experience of being racialized, we didn’t have a common racialized experience.

It seems as if it should be obvious, but upon hearing it the first time, my heart opened with more compassion for we of whom are not of the dominant culture. In our workshop, every single person had been racialized as a consequence of living in the United States. Each one is racialized based on their geography in the country, in addition to the relationships to friends, relatives, loved ones, institutions and society. Not one person's early soul tenderness was battered by racism the same way. I have no claim to the experience of being black, but navigating La Frontera, the borderlands as explained by Gloria E. Anzaldúa, is its own experience. I grew up occupying that liminal space of in between, not pale enough to be white, but without the Spanish language, unable to navigate in the Latinx sphere either. How you were treated could turn on a dime. Especially, if your name changed from European to Hispanic or back. I was punished a whole school year for a surname change and return. My mother experienced it, and my sister, who has fairer skin than mine with dark hair and eyes, experienced it.

As the daughter of a Mexican American mother with the black hair and beautiful brown skin of her father, I was the first of sixteen grandchildren with the black hair and dark brown eyes that favored him. Unfortunately, he died before the year before. As the daughter of my Irish, Scandinavian, Northern European father, I'd never quite fit in. The McGregor family loved me anyway, often pointing out how smart I was, or tall I was, even though my build was more solid, and I tended to be chubby and darker. My heart and self-esteem suffered each time others were disparaged for gaining weight by the weight and look obsessed white women in the family, or how "Mexicans" or worse, "wetbacks" were disparaged by my new German stepfamily, most often by my stepmother.

If I had been asked a different question, the rest of the workshop might have gone differently. Instead, I became the female example of white denial. The trainer said to the group, "We people of color see you as white. You are not fooling us." My shutting down served as another sign of whiteness. In truth, I was in shock. Every misgiving about not being a person of color enough, was laid bare. I did not speak out about myself, nor with anyone else, the rest of the workshop. So, was he right? In a way, yes. And in a way, no.

I have much baggage: growing up in colonialized geography, feeling less than, being a widow of a small, dark, non-gender conforming, Filipina, a raw recent falling out with a relative, being enraged by my late beloved's treatment in the world, the traumatic death and aftermath, being an outcast accused of being unfeeling because I was white, and as such, had no culture, a coopted memorial. To say anything would have sounded like an excuse, or worse, as if I was trying to divert the discomfort, to make the conversation about my feelings, or separate myself from other whites by claiming I had suffered more, or that I had my own oppression, and therefore understood people of color's experience. Diversionary tactics are not new, and I've witnessed each one more than once.

For the evening and the next day, memories of scenes in the hospital, the funeral, and the aftermath haunted me. PTSD is real. When the other facilitator discussed what ends up lost to whites for opting to participate in whiteness the next day, I still could not trust myself to speak. When she blamed herself, her white privilege and ignorance, for the early loss of her own spouse, I just felt ill. I'd just managed to work past the survivor's guilt, stopped finding reasons to blame myself for my beloved's early death.

Going in to anti-racism work the decade before, I needed to be clear in my identity. I considered myself one of the mestizaje, on the border. After much discussion with my minister of color, I took on "person of color" identity as a political statement. That meant the battles are mine. Every single day, I choose not to walk away. My liberation is inextricably woven into the fabric of all people of color. Although there are days I hate the injustice too much to be healthy, I am committed. I'm committed to being open, learning, and to defer to the leadership of those people of color most affected by the intersecting issue at hand. I'm committed for all the multiracial children who do not quite fit into either family, and do not understand why race is such a big deal. I'm committed for gender nonconforming people of color, who are the most vulnerable, the most in danger, in our society. I'm committed for queer people of color, who are nearly as vulnerable. I am especially committed now for queer and gender nonconforming immigrants .

I'm grateful to have recently married, to a partner who works with me and learns with me. Still, I have married back into white privilege. So, what do I like about being white? I like that in passing, I can use the privilege I do have to speak out, protest, agitate, and put my body on the line for those who cannot. I like that in passing, I see and hear white people for who they are with each other. I like that in passing, my privilege can be used for the common good, rather than to get ahead in the capitalist white cultural narrative.

Public Service Announcement

For those who don't know me as well as others: I talk about supernatural and spiritual things a lot, and I use my preferred language to do so. That does not mean I expect everyone to accept what I say, agree, or believe the same things. I am perfectly comfortable with multiple ways of looking with the world.

So if I do that, understand I'm just speaking about my experience as I choose to interpret it, and I don't mind if people translate that into "Erica has an active imagination and the psychological need to believe in the supernatural even though there's no proof whatsoever." I really don't. I hope that when I do it, it's not oppressive or comes off as if I'm expecting people to accept it. It's just that I get excited about stuff I'm into and I like to talk about it.

I tend to think many of us as human beings have common experiences, but choose to interpret them or describe them in different ways according to their world view. My brand of belief does not require belief by others, and it is flexible enough for me to always hold disbelief and skepticism at the same time, recognizing that I"m making a deliberate choice. :)

I also affirm other peoples' experiences in their preferred language. If someone tells me Jesus told them such and such today, my response will be, "Cool!" And while I am not quite adept at putting myself into athiest shoes, I have much admiration for people who do not need to believe in supernatural forces, in order to find beauty and inspiration in the world.

I find their world views balancing, and since people like me always have moments in life where our chosen beliefs can't seem to help us, it comes in very handy to know how to find inspiration without a cosmological mythology. Sometimes the most important spiritual experience is to be present in the world, as it is, with what you can see, touch, explain, and prove, to the exclusion of distracting meaning-making. There's nothing "less" spiritual about this.

I guess that kinda DOES make me a Unitarian Universalist, *tech*nically. But I prefer to identify spiritually as a neo-pagan who just happened to be adopted by the UU tribe. :)

It Matters Where We Came From

Between my serving as worship associate on this Sunday and helping to create the accompanying communal altar for the congregation, I’ve been thinking about Day of the Dead and ancestors a lot these past few days. The other night while Dad was watching the Warrior game, a commercial for a beer came on - Modelo Especial. The commercial ended with “It doesn’t matter where you came from; It matters what you’re made of.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, they’re using a uniquely USAmerican perspective to sell a Mexican beer.” Because Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, is a recognition that it does matter where we came from, that what we’re made of is in large part due to where we came from.

So... the Chinese traditionally do not celebrate Dia de Muertos. That holiday originated with the peoples of Mesoamerica. But we observe similar practices at other times of the year. Multiple times of the year. (Our ancestors are pretty demanding.) We too visit the graves of departed loved ones on special days, and we too invite our ancestors home for a visit and meal at the family altar.

In my family, the biggest ancestral observance is QingMing. On QingMing we visit the graves of loved ones and bring their favorite foods and drinks. When Mom died in 2009, QingMing became a lot more complicated, since she's in Colma and my paternal grandparents are in Walnut Creek.

Last year, in 2015, QingMing fell on a Sunday, so I was at church, prior to driving all over the Bay Area. Before I left UUSF, I worked up the courage to do something I'd wanted to do since I first joined the congregation. Sheepishly, furtively, I approached the sarcophagus of Thomas Starr King, who lies just outside our church. I awkwardly bowed (3 times), and poured a small libation of coffee for my spiritual ancestor. The embarrassment I felt came from what other people might think, who were passing by. Not because of any question in my mind that Thomas Starr King is my ancestor and deserves an offering.

Starr King may not have contributed to my genetic makeup, but he nevertheless contributed to the making of me. I am who I am because he was who he was. Just as Ralph Waldo Emerson's blood may not run thru my veins, but his ideas run thru my mind. And just as my forebears sacrificed and strived to make life better for their descendants, so too has my life, our lives, been bettered by the labors of Clara Barton and Frederick Douglas. I've learned from my aunts, and I've learned from Sophia Lyon Fahs and Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley. I am who I am because they were who they were.

To recognize our spiritual ancestors is to recognize the interdependent web, and the ongoing unfolding of life. It is to recognize that we don’t just come from a lineage of blood and that we are even now, no matter what age, continually being created, and helping to create others by our actions.

On my altar at home, there’s a picture of Mom, the names of my grandparents written in Chinese, a small pantheon of deities, AND representations of several spiritual ancestors. They can’t all occupy the altar at once - there isn’t enough space - but they make their appearances depending on whose counsel I most need at the time.

Now, it is easy to recognize someone as an ancestor - in other words, someone we have a connection with - when they are people whom we greatly admire. It might be harder to recognize people who are neither familially related nor did they necessarily say or do anything profound. In fact, I likely would never have known they existed had their lives not been cut short. Mario Woods, surrounded by five San Francisco police officers, crouching against the wall, obviously scared of what he likely knew was going to happen next. Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros, a 14-yr old girl from El Salvador who died alone in the desert, while trying to reunite with her mother in Los Angeles. 14 year olds should not be anyone’s ancestor.

Their likenesses and those of others who were killed by injustice share space on my altar with family relatives and bodhisattvas and luminaries. Because they too have something to teach me.

We honor our ancestors so that we know who we are.

Losing Face

Back in 2010, some Unitarian Universalist congregations were already deeply involved in work on immigration, but most of our congregations weren't yet aware of the escalating anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies in several states. That changed in April of 2010 when Arizona passed SB1070, which was the most punitive law against undocumented immigrants at the time. Suddenly, everyone was paying attention to Arizona, and calls went up to boycott. The UUA had previously scheduled our 2012 General Assembly to be in Phoenix, so a heated debate ensued as to whether we should honor the boycott or go to Phoenix anyway but working with local immigration activists to protest.

No where was that question more hotly debated than among UUs of color and anti-racist white allies. For some of us, laws such as SB1070 posed a direct threat to self and/or loved ones. For others of us, this was a crucial moment in which our actions would demonstrate whether we UUs really lived the values we espouse. (Much like the Black Lives Matter movement is right now.) We all agreed on the importance of the moment but not the correct course of action. A decision was to be made in June, at General Assembly 2010 in Minneapolis, and during the weeks leading up to it, arguments flared in emails, on list-serves, and on social media.

I had my opinions but generally avoided the heat, until one day during such a debate, I was rebuked. By an elder UU of color. A minister and a long-time leader in our association. Someone whom I greatly admire and whose opinion of me mattered deeply to me. In the semi-public domain of Facebook, he sharply dismissed the points I was trying to make, and dismissed me as someone who “likes to argue.” His words were actually really mild so far as internet arguments go, but hurt deeply coming from him. Someone I admired had questioned my motivations, my character. Moreover, given his stature within a community that I treasure, I feared others would turn against me too. Hot, angry tears streamed down my face as I weighed different possible responses. What would be the most effective way to make him and everyone else witnessing the exchange realize just how wrong he was?

Luckily, I put off my retort to talk first to a friend. She asked me, “Is this relationship important to you? Are you willing to lose it in the process of defending yourself, even if you feel you're in the right?” It had never occurred to me to not defend myself, to drop the argument altogether. The idea that people might be swayed by his words against me still gnawed. But with her encouragement, I set aside both pride and the bullet point arguments I'd compiled, and told him a broader, single-sentence truth - that he has always had and will always have my deepest respect. With my friend's help, I did this even though I still felt wronged, still felt shaken, and actually had little hope of reconciling any time soon.

The response was magical. His words back to me were warm and gentle. And when we met in Minneapolis, he greeted me with a big bear hug. All ill will melted away.

As I relate this story to you now, it seems kinda silly. An online disagreement. Happens every day. But relationships do end on such arguments.

To be dissed in public constitutes a loss of face. The Chinese actually have two different phrases that can be translated in English to losing face – diu lian and diu mianzi. Diu means to lose, and lian means your literal, physical face. Whereas mianzi refers to how one appears to others. For example, when we say in English that someone is “putting on a brave face”, we are referring to mianzi. And just as lian and mianzi have related but different meanings, so too losing them respectively means related but different things. To suggest that I was causing trouble because I “like to argue” threatened my lian; it implied something about my moral character. Because it came from a respected elder in the community, it also threatened my mianzi, or social standing. Upon thinking about it later, I realized that even though I had not used harsh words, by openly questioning this elder's position, I too had inadvertently threatened his mianzi, which is probably what prompted his response. By re-iterating my respect for him, I gave back what I'd taken away – ge mianzi, giving face – and thus he was better able to do that too.

If we all hold on to the mistake, we can't see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can't see what we're capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one's own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you: when a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that's rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don't have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.

Ministering To and With Young Adults

Author: 
Alex Haider-Winnett
Members of UU Oakland Young Adults

Ministering To and With Young Adults
Sermon by Alex Haider-Winnett
Delivered at First Unitarian of Oakland May 25, 2014

Friends, it is so very good to be here with you today. It is always a pleasure to worship with you. As our dear Rev. Jacqueline would say, “There is a sweet, sweet spirit in this place” and it feeds my soul. Today’s theme is on “Ministering To and With Young Adults”. You have already heard from some of our congregation’s young adults. The love and support you give this community helps grow strong leaders who are changing the world. Present in our group are peace activists, veterans, civil rights lawyers, teachers, seminarians and ministers, artists, tech professionals, non-profit administrators, social workers and entrepreneurs. But we also have people struggling to find work. People working hard to figure out how to make ends meet or looking to find work that is meaningful. And your love supports us all.

I am familiar with the topic both as a young adult and also because I served this community as the coordinator of the Young Adult Ministries for two years. I am grateful for the opportunities this position has given me, all the friends and connections I have made and the ways it has fed my soul.

Last weekend, we bridged six youth into young adulthood. It is one of my favorite parts of the church year. The bridgers--who are usually, but not always, high school graduates-- take a moment to express their feelings about bridging to the congregation. They often share a fond memory through a short reflection, singing a song or reading a poem. Then we extend a blessing to the bridgers as they move toward the chancel where the church’s young adult community is waiting to welcome them into our circle. The bridge is an apt metaphor. Not only does it represent a transition from one stage in life to another, it also has another meaning. In recent studies, we see that churches in our faith community are doing a poor job at retaining our youth. As many as 90% of our youth will leave our churches somewhere in their late teens and twenties. Combine this with the fact that 1/3rd of people currently unaffiliated with a religious community are under the age of 35, it points to a growing population of young people whose needs are not being met by our congregations. This period of young adult non-affiliation is such a common occurrence, we have term for it: “The Gap”. The theory of The Gap states that our youth leave when they are in their late teens and come back in their 30’s, when they have some stability; when they have a job, are married or have kids. Hence the strange lifespan of UU Young Adult Ministries: 18-35 (Spanning 17 Years). And so, the Bridging Ceremony is one way that we have been working over the years to “Mind The Gap.”

When we think of our Bridging Ceremony, we usually represent it with a large, sturdy bridge. One like the Golden Gate Bridge which has lasted for decades and has thousands of cars, trucks and buses go over it each day. One that needs repairs now and again but pretty much stands the test of time. In reality, our bridge is perilous. It is a rope bridge. It sways in the wind. Some of the strands are loose. And there are crumbling and missing boards. The Bridge is difficult to cross. It takes faith to believe that every step of the way will be supported. And not everyone makes it. Try as we might, there are times when young adults need to take a step back from trying to cross The Gap and move away from UU community for a while. It is common. And I bet that if you ask any young adult here, you would find stories where they took some prolonged time away from church.

I could tell you some of my stories. Stories of making difficult choices between work, school and church. Stories of being in rural Indiana, hours away from the nearest congregation. And stories of over-committing to the point of burnout. I could tell you the things I told myself that made it easier to walk away from church: That I needed some time away for self care; it was a compromise until I got a different job; or, that things would be different if I went somewhere else. And stories of working odd hours which made it impossible to attend church during program hours. Stories of feeling pushed out or underappreciated; of having my voice and experiences silenced and ignored.

I could tell you how since I turned 18, I have lived in 10 different houses in eight different cities. That I have worked at least a dozen jobs. I have attended services at numerous UU churches and also Quaker Meeting Houses, Catholic Parishes, Jewish Temples and a whole slew of other ad hoc, multi-faith communities. My twenties were a lot of things but spiritually-stable wasn’t necessarily one of them.

And I would be happy to tell you those stories some day. But all of those stores pale in comparison to one thing: we have covenanted to be a multi-generational worship community. If we are truly to live up to that promise, that means creating authentic intergenerational relationships and being willing to be changed by the new experiences we share. Creating a multi-generational community does not merely mean taking a few minutes out of worship to have young people participate. Nor does it mean having a few token young people on committees. It means getting to know people all along the age spectrum and making honest, thoughtful and transformative relationships.

There are people out there desiring our community. There are people who are hungering for a community that is spiritual but not dogmatic. They want a community where their questions are honored and accepted. There are people who are looking for a place where they can explore new spiritual practices and find ways to commune with the divine. There are people wanting a community where we can do good works and strive for justice together. There are people who are wanting a community that will accept them for who they are; a community that will love them, cherish them and save their life. Because, if there is one thing I know about Unitarian Universalism--the one thing that helped me hang on when I was struggling with my faith--is that this church saves lives. I know that is what I want. And I think this is true for a lot of my peers my age. So, if we are going to uphold our covenantal desire to be a multi-generational community, how do we minister to young people?

There are a many ways we can do so. But it is going to take some work and new ways of how we we do church. I would like to first say, that our congregation does better than most. We have dozens of active young adults. And we are the fastest growing age demographic for the past two years. But there is still lots of room for improvement. And not everything is going to fit in the last few minutes of this sermon. So I want to look at three broad categories: Welcoming, Hospitality, and Mentoring.

First is Welcoming. In preparing for this sermon, I spoke with a lot of young adults both here and in the wider community. For young adults who tend not to go to church, they say that most congregations they have gone to were not welcoming enough. They went with the hope of finding a community that could be “their community” but in most cases, they found the welcome as well as their worship to be cold. As we know, our welcome and our worship at UU Oakland are anything but cold. But people will never experience the warmth of our community if they never come to the church in the first place. We need to have a visible and appealing welcome mat.

And in this day-in-age, that means a presence on the Internet.

Take for instance, our young adult page on facebook. Currently, we have 125 members (which is roughly half as many pledging members in this congregation) but according to a recent poll, only about 10-15% of members of the group attend church regularly. The others use it as a way to stay in touch with our larger community virtually. While virtual contact may not be the most ideal way of participating with a spiritual community, it is a valid one and, I believe, preferable to no contact at all. And while it is a start, there is much more we could be doing to be present on the Internet.

The next category is Hospitality: Churches usually seek out people who intend to be long-time members who will pledge. There is an expectation that people who come for a few months sign the membership book, pledge all they can and devote their time to the work of the church. I am an active, pledging, voting member. I am honored and pleased to be one. But this is also the first time in my adult life that I have been able to do so. As long as we continue to believe that membership means a long-term commitment, we are going to be convincing a lot of young adults that this is not a place for them. Due to fragile job and housing markets, young adults are reluctant to commit to any institution. We need to recognize that people who become members may only do so for a very short time before they have to move on. I am proud and grateful for any and all people who wish to hang their hats with us. But whenever I meet a visitor, my question is not “When can we get this person to sign the book and pledge?” it is “What does this person need and how can those needs be met?”. By focusing on hospitality over membership, we can make space for people to feel welcome for however long they may be with us.

And this, I think, is the crux of the manner. If we are to say that “All are worthy and all are welcome”, there should be no restrictions, caveats or parentheses. We don’t say “You are worthy if you have a certain net worth” nor do we say “You are welcome as long as you intend to stay.” And this is why I think young adult ministries are important, by working to make all feel safe to be vulnerable, intimate and authentic, we are working to build the Beloved Community. And young adults, who are coming with hopes of finding a supportive community will come as long as we continue to make room for them.

My third category is mentorship: When people join our congregation, we should foster a relationship of mentoring. People should be encouraged to join, learn and work for our common vision as best as each person can. New visitors and members should be able to explore and find which aspects of the church most serve their personal ministries. This may take a while. It could take months or even years. But the best way to help a young adult find their spot in the church is by building authentic interpersonal relationships by getting to know people, finding out what they are passionate about and how it overlaps with the work of the church. Doing so allows committees to pick new members based on their skills and talents rather than merely their age.

I have a story from about five years ago that I feel epitomizes how these three themes of Welcoming, Hospitality and Mentoring can either help or hinder a young adult fully participating in a church community. After the job market collapsed in 2009, I started waiting tables. It was what I was able to do to make ends meet. I would start work at 5 PM and not get off of work until 3AM. I would often be getting to bed when the sun was rising. I had been going to church down the street from my house but worship no longer fit into my schedule. I remember once running into a friend on the street. This friend said, “Alex. We miss you. Where have you been? Why haven’t you been to church?” And I told this friend honestly, “Since I got my job, church is just too early for me.” The friend said, “Too early? 11:30 is too early?” And I said, “Yup. 11:30 is too early for me. I don’t usually get out of bed until 1pm.” I told this friend, “You know what would be ideal for me? If church had a 4 AM worship service, I would be thrilled to go.” There was some nervous laughter and some awkward silence and then we both went on our way. But you know what? I wasn’t kidding. If I could have left work and gone to a 4 AM worship service, I would have gladly gone to it. But there was no late night worship. I never really expected there to be one. But it shows the way that Sunday morning programming just does not work for everyone.

I am thankful that here, our staff and clergy have created authentic relationships with young adults to understand that we desired an opportunity to worship in a different way and different time than we do on Sundays and have helped and empowered us to create worship on Tuesday evenings. It is quickly becoming an important worship space for people of all ages to come and be together in community. And we have found that people who do not come on Sundays have been coming to Tuesday evenings. By listening to the needs of our members and those who wish to join us, we have transformed the way we do worship in a way that makes it more accessible to people who had previously thought that the community was closed to them.

Our young adults are looking for a spiritual community. Despite national reports that young people are rejecting worship communities and studies that say UU youth will leave us to find another home for a while, we know otherwise. We know that our congregation can be a life-changing community for young adults. We have already seen it happen. By supporting things like Tuesday night vespers but also individuals like Kyle (note to reader: Kyle is a young adult member currently participating in humanitarian aid in Syria who skyped in during the service to give a testimonial) and our bridgers last week and every one on the chancel today, you are creating a transformative multi-generational community. But our congregations are not doing enough to help make a safe space for them to explore. We need to widen our welcome, strengthen our hospitality and deepen our mentoring relationships so that those who come through our doors know that there is a place for them no matter how new they are to our faith, how long they intend to stay, and however hurt they have been from previous experiences. By working on these things, we can create a culture where all of our young adults and all people are willing and able to fully participate to the best of their abilities and feel proud to be part of our community. And together, we will transform ourselves, each other and the world.

Civility

Mom's Biscuits

Recently, my offering to a Sunday brunch pot-luck was a double batch of Mom’s Sunday biscuits. I knew from my childhood that this recipe resulted from practicing over and over for my grandfather until it was just right. I asked my mom to tell the story again, because family recipe stories can be as revealing as other life stories. I was not disappointed.

My grandfather, Paul, decided that my young mother would be difficult to marry off, so she  needed to learn a useful skill. A recurring theme in his relations with his four daughters, matrimony was a source of some anxiety in the immigrant family. Nevertheless, my grandfather decided to teach my mother to make biscuits in order to “attract a husband” when she was old enough. Paul qualified on that account, having served as a cowboy cook in his youth. The morning of a cattle drive in Northern Arizona in the early 1920’s, the assigned cook quit over an unknown slight.  Paul, a recent arrival from Mexico, volunteered for the position. Due to time constraints, restless cattle, and a lack of other volunteers, Paul took over the chuck wagon after the cook decamped. He learned on the job. Dutch oven biscuits, made in a campfire, became his specialty.

My mother recalled long Sunday drives after mass. As this was prior to Vatican II, no one was allowed to break their fast before church. Driving further and further into the desert north of Phoenix, they would take in the landscape. Appearing barren, the desert would reveal its colorful and often beautiful secrets. Still, everyone was hungry. An incorrigible tease, Paul would ask if a place looked good to stop. The other occupants in the car would say, “yes!” He would find something wrong with the site, and keep driving. This would go on a few times before he finally pulled over.

Once in an ideal spot, he would build a campfire. Paul would take the old cast iron dutch oven out of the car and place it in the fire. He quickly made biscuit dough and dropped spoonfuls into the oven. He covered the oven, and they would wait. My grandmother would have packed other picnic food, but those biscuits, slightly burnt from the oven, were my mothers favorite thing in her young life. The whole morning at mass, the interminable drive for what seemed like hours was worth it in the instant that hot quick bread melted in her mouth.

Carolyn was game for the biscuit making enterprise. He would whisper to her, “Isn’t it about time you practiced those biscuits? Remember, only one cup of flour.” The recipe would make just enough for four to six biscuits. Happily, she fell again and again for his ploy and eventually did perfect that recipe. It took some time, but she began to wonder exactly who was benefitting from all of this “practice.”

As one who fell for both my parents’ pranks and jokes again and again, it was good to hear that she, too, was a child once. My grandfather passed away after a long illness when my mother was twenty. Sweet memories of her childhood, when her dad was still healthy, were revealed in that recipe.

Rosie

The Kitchen God and Grace

Zhao Jun the Kitchen God and his wife

Today is the fourth day of the first lunar month, the day that Zao Jun the Kitchen God returns from heaven. In Chinese tradition Zao Jun the Kitchen God hangs out in the kitchen of each home, because the kitchen is the heart of the home where all the juiciest gossip can be overheard. There he observes the family's good and bad doings throughout the year, with the faithful help of his wife who records them. Ten days ago, a week before the New Year, Zao Jun ascended to heaven to file his report with the Jade Emperor. Before his departure (via burning of his effigy) his lips were smeared with honey. Some say that the honey is a bribe. Some say that it sticks his mouth shut. Either way, the hope is that only sweet things about the family make it to the Jade Emperor's ears. Now, ten days later, Zao Jun returns. Each year I wonder, what about the ten days while he is gone? Are they a time when folks can do whatever they want? Or does the Kitchen God's wife keep an eye on things in his absence?

Funny story about how Zao Jun the Kitchen God got his job. He was not always a god. Once he was a human being named Zhang Lang. He was a handsome and wealthy man and rather full of himself. Zhang Lang was married to a devoted wife. In typical Chinese patriarchal fashion, even though people praise her for her virtue no one ever bothered to record her name. But she was dutiful, we know that. Nonetheless, Zhang Lang's roaming eyes landed on a pretty, younger woman from whom he left his dutiful wife. As punishment, the gods struck him blind, and the younger woman left him. Zhang Lang was reduced to begging door to door. One day he happened to knock on the door of his abandoned wife; only he didn't realize it was her because he was blind. She, on the other hand, recognized him immediately and saw his condition. Taking pity, she invited him in and fed him. Warmed by the roaring kitchen fire and with a belly full of food, Zhang Lang began to relate his story, tearfully regretting the poor choices that he had made. When his wife heard his remorse she said, “Zhang Lang, open your eyes. I am your wife whom you wronged, and I forgive you.” At that moment, Zhang Lang opened his eyes and he could see again. He saw that it was his wife, whom he had abandoned, who was his benefactor. And he was overcome with shame. Unable to face her, he flung himself into the kitchen fire and perished.

As the story goes, the gods took pity on him and made him into the Kitchen God, with his (again unnamed) wife as his aid. Together again, forever. I'm not entirely sure that this was a mercy though... always having to listen to the petty foibles of families, year after year, being smeared with honey and then burned, only to return and do it all over again. And his poor wife – what did she do to deserve her fate? Secretary to the man who twice did her wrong due to his pride. Yes, I said twice. Once, when he left her for the younger woman. And once again, when he could not accept her forgiveness and instead punished himself, and her by extension. Zhang Lang felt shame. And shame comes from pride, not humility. Shame comes when you are caught not being as great as you think you are. If Zhang Lang had truly learned his lesson he would have gratefully accepted his wife's forgiveness.

But I am not writing this to condemn Zao Jun the Kitchen God. I'm writing this because I know how he feels. I too have felt shame for hurting others with my bad behavior. And I too have been unable to accept forgiveness. In fact, I remember once telling my minister that I knew that God loved me because I could feel that love, but I could not accept it. I did not feel worthy. That may on surface sound humble but talk about arrogance! It is arrogant to think that you are the one who can decide. Forgiveness, like love, isn't based on merit, and you can neither decide that you deserve it nor decide that you don't.  Forgiveness is a gift, a blessing, grace.  I know that, I do, and yet at times there is part of me just can't let go.  So pity poor Zao Jun.

Maybe the Kitchen God is doing penance even now. Caught in a purgatory of sorts in which he'll stay, condemned to be burned again every year, until he learns true humility and accepts his wife's forgiveness. Maybe the Kitchen God's wife isn't his secretary, but rather just patiently waiting for that day to come.

Happy Indigenous Peoples Day

No to Columbus Day

October 12th has been designated as "Columbus Day," and the Monday closest to it is traditionally a national holiday in observance.  I grew up with the story - I'm sure that many of you did too - of how in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and discovered the New World, which eventually led to the founding of America.  And it was such a brave thing to do too, since in those days people believed the earth was flat.  But Columbus knew better and he risked a ship mutiny in order to show us all how the earth was round, and between that and the founding of America, that's why we pay homage to this man every year.  Great story - the problem is that 95% of it is untrue.

Others have discussed this in far more detail but essentially:

1n 1492, every educated person already knew that the world was round.  Columbus was sailing in order to find a new/faster trade route to Asia.  He was not the first to "discover" what would come to be known as the Americas.  Other explorers such as the Vikings and the Chinese had been there before him.  And other people had already settled on that land, namely the ancestors of the people Columbus met.  Columbus himself never set foot on land that is now considered part of the U.S.  And... Columbus was a horrible, horrible person, even by the standards of the 15th century!  In addition to systematic murder, rape, and mutiliation, he founded the cross-Atlantic slave trade.  All with the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church. (I love Catholicism but this was not one of their finer days.)  Columbus' horrific practices were in line with and set the precedent for how the Doctrine of Discovery would play out in the Americas, a world view that continues to influence policy against First Nations peoples even today.

If Columbus did not "discover" the "new world" and found the Americas, why is there a national holiday in the U.S. named after him?  Long story short, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic Italian American organization, wanted a day on which Italian Americans could express their ethnic pride.  So they lobbied for Columbus Day, and that's how it came to be. 

I totally understand the desire for a day in which Italian Americans can express pride in being Italian.  Other ethnic groups in the U.S. have their days and so should the Italians.  But Columbus is a horrble choice to honor as an Italan icon.  Is he really whom you want to represent your culture?  Why not Galileo, or St. Francis of Assisi, or Verdi, or Michelanagelo, or Da Vinci, or Dante, any number of amazing Italians.  Moreover, Columbus was not even Italian.  Most scholars now believe that he was Spanish. 

So, NO to Columbus Day.  YES to Indigenous Peoples Day.  (And yes, I know that Indigenous Peoples Day is reactionary, since it's on the exact same day as Columbus Day and exists because of it. But I have no problem with reactionary while we're in the beginning stages of resistance.)

But the main reason for my blog post today, aside from spreading the TRUTH about Columbus, is to address some pushback I've been reading. It's pushback that sounds so much like what I hear about First Nations issues in general.  Namely, "What happened is in the past."  This is followed by, depending on how friendly or hostile the speaker is to First Nations causes, "Why can't you just move on?" or "There are more important things to be fighting for."

The fight around Columbus day isn't just about Columbus the man - and in fact most of the popular stories told about him are made up anyway - nor is it about what happened in "the past."  What we are working for when we oppose Columbus day is the heart and soul of our shared society *today.* Holidays influence the way that we see the world. When we set aside a day each year to honor a man who colonized and conquered (and raped and maimed and committed genocide), then what we are saying is that these are the traits that we *continue* to value. When we repeat his fabricated story, we reinforce these values in our children. Opposing "Columbus Day" is not about the past or about a single man - it's about here and now and who we are and what we stand for.

So, NO to Columbus Day.  YES to Indigenous Peoples Day. 

 

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